Exercises: Simple is Usually Better

I find often that people want to run exercises they aren’t quite ready for.  Sometimes those exercises are too complex, or they simply aren’t the appropriate type.  Most often, we run exercises to test plans, policy, and procedures; but sometimes those plans, policies, and procedures aren’t quite ready to be tested.  Last year I advised a client to run a workshop instead of a tabletop exercise.  The initial goal of the tabletop was to validate a new plan, but this plan wasn’t ready to be validated.  The problem was that many stakeholders hadn’t yet seen the plan, and the review of that plan by our team in preparedness for the exercise wasn’t favorable.  The plan had much of the needed content, but it was disjointed and didn’t have any logical flow.  By conducting a scenario-based workshop, we were able to identify not only the ideal flow of the plan by flagging benchmark activities, but we were also able to discuss expectations of and for each stakeholder agency in the plan.  The client was then able to apply the results of the workshop to restructure their plan and make some needed substantive changes.

Similarly, I’ve encouraged a current client to conduct a workshop instead of a tabletop.  The initial goal of this tabletop was to identify how a new group of stakeholders could integrate into an existing plan.  In this situation, the tabletop would have been less than effective as the new stakeholder group isn’t yet identified in the plan.  The outcome of the workshop will be to identify how this integration can occur.

I think that sometimes people gravitate to certain exercises simply because they are more popular in a certain application.  That preconceived notion might be too complex or simply a poor choice for what you really need to accomplish.  When it comes to discussion-based exercises, most people default to a tabletop.  With operations-based exercises, it can vary.  Drills are often used for tactical applications, but we don’t see them as much in EOCs.  Drills certainly have a place in an EOC if you are looking to test a very specific function or activity.  While full-scale exercises are fun and sexy, I’ve been to the site of plenty that are total chaos because the fundamental premise of certain plans hasn’t been worked out (or some stakeholders aren’t familiar with them), which perhaps should have been done through a discussion-based exercise or a drill or functional exercise first.  Running a drill to test and familiarize the process of setting up key equipment prior to doing it for the first time in a full scale will pay a lot of benefits, and certainly prevent dozens or hundreds of other people being held up in a full scale.

Another issue I often see with exercises is very long and complex Master Scenario Events Lists (MSELs).  The MSEL is essentially the timeline or script of the exercise.  Along with listing all injects, it also identifies all benchmarks in the management of the exercise, such as StartEx and EndEx, and the introduction of new elements or transition to a different segment.  While there is no particular rule of thumb for how many injects are needed for different exercise types, everything needs to associate back to the objectives of the exercise.  I hate injects that are crafted simply for ‘noise’ (unless it’s an intel exercise), or injects intended to just give someone something to do.  Arguably, if the participants take an exercise seriously, such as a functional exercise, and play out the situation as they would in real life, you can engage an entire EOC for a few hours with even ten well-crafted injects.  While some functions are very focused, consider that the vast majority of what we do in emergency management requires coordination among a variety of elements and functions.  Capitalize on that.  One inject may engage multiple agencies or functions because of the need to coordinate and problem solve.  It’s not enough to identify a solution to the problem, but work through where the resources will come from, how they will get to where they need to go, and what support is needed for them and how long.  That’s a lot of problems to solve and will often transcend every function within the incident command system.  Exercises don’t need to be complex to be effective.  Create a handful of objectives and make sure everything relates back to them.  Simplicity can work.

My last recommendation is to keep your exercise planning team a manageable size.  I’ve been the lead planner for some very large exercises.  These exercises, largely due to their sponsors, ended up involving massive exercise planning teams – and by massive I mean over five or six dozen people – or more.  These are just sheer insanity.  Not every agency or organization involved in the exercise needs to be directly represented, nor does each organization need to send a small army of people.  What you do need is consensus from those organizations on the objectives and their scope of play.  That doesn’t mean they have to be involved in every aspect of planning the exercise.  Just like any other meeting or group project, a large exercise planning team can be cumbersome and management by committee is never efficient.  If need be, stakeholder groups can be developed based upon function.  For example, a fire service exercise planning team would develop their contributions to the exercise.  Just make sure that these groups are well coordinated and the overall exercise planning effort is unified, otherwise you’ll end with a disjointed exercise effort.

In the end, simplicity rules.  As you begin planning your exercise, consider, in every step if it can or should be simplified.  Always refer back to your intent and your objectives.  Chances are you can create a simpler exercise that is just as impactful, or perhaps more impactful.  When our inclination is to make things overly complicated, we often miss the point entirely.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

 

 

Preparedness Exercises – The Building Block Concept Can Be Misleading

If you’ve been doing emergency management and homeland security exercises for even a little while, you are probably familiar with this graphic.  It’s included in a great many exercise training courses and other materials that talk about the different types of exercises out there.  This graphic looks correct at first glance.  It seems to make sense.  Intuitively, we assume that full-scale exercises are the most complex exercise type and that they test capabilities to the greatest extent.  When we put more thought into that, though, we realize that it can be wrong.

I’m happy to note that the most recent document on the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) (April 2013) does NOT include this graphic.  They include a couple of paragraphs on using a ‘progressive approach’ to a multi-year exercise program, recommending that “each successive exercise building upon the previous one until mastery is achieved” is the path forward.  While I’m not too crazy about this statement, either, it’s not as misleading as the legacy ‘building block’ graphic.

Here’s the problem with the graphic – It assumes too much.  While in some instances this graphic can be correct, it shouldn’t be regarded as even occasional guidance.  I’ve witnessed, managed, designed, evaluated, or otherwise participated in a number of workshops, tabletops, drill, and functional exercises that are far more complex than some full-scale exercises I’ve likewise been involved in.  Similarly, I can attest to some ‘lower level’ exercises testing capabilities to a greater extent than the ‘higher level’ exercises.  The hierarchal structure is simply misleading.  The problem this can create is people being dismissive of the relevance, necessity, and value of conducting exercises other than functional and full-scale.

Making a training comparison, exercise types don’t really stick to a scaled taxonomy.  (Check out this article for a small introduction to Bloom’s Taxonomy which is used in instructional design.) While we can state that an awareness level course is more about knowing and understanding, and an operations-level course is more about applying, we can’t say the same for exercises as a spectrum generalization.  Consider that seminars are certainly geared toward orienting people with information, while workshops, on the other hand, require creation of a product, by definition.  Tabletop exercises can (and should) be incredibly in-depth, analyzing plans and policy, while drills are more about application.

So what exercise type should you choose?  It goes back to the foundations of exercise design – consider your objectives, then consider what exercise type best fits what was identified that you want to accomplish.  Reflecting, now, back on the progressive approach mentioned in the HSEEP document, it’s true that you probably don’t want to jump into a full-scale right away.  That has less to do with the perceived complexity of the exercise and more to do with how plans are properly tested – which is the main reason why we exercise.  First, we need to talk through aspects of our plans, policies, and procedures.  We need to make sure that our foundational assumptions are sound and that broader decisions and actions are in line with the documents created.  This is typically the reasoning behind conducting a table top exercise before any type of operations-based exercise.  Once we have established that the foundational premise and supporting policies of the plan is sound, then it can make sense to progress to a selection of operations-based exercises to test various tactile aspects of the plan and associated procedures.

That said, some procedures are so tactile that really the only way to test them is through an operations-based exercise.  Perhaps they are first built in a workshop-type of environment, then go straight to a drill for testing.  That might be all that’s needed.  Yes, they could be further integrated into a functional or full-scale later, if you choose to integrate them into other activities.

The bottom line here is that while the building-block approach to exercises makes sense at a glance, it is really quite more complex than the graphic eludes to.  Yes, it still has some relevance, but it should not be viewed as the rule.  Just as in training and emergency response, objectives drive everything in exercises.

© 2017 – Timothy M Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

 

Are You Inviting the Right People to Your Exercises?

A couple of days ago I started reading Rumsfeld’s Rules – Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life.  Hopefully you have some familiarity with Donald Rumsfeld – the man was a naval aviator, US Congressman, aide to four US presidents, corporate CEO, and is the only person to ever serve as Secretary of Defense twice.  Politics aside, Mr. Rumsfeld has had quite a prolific career.  Throughout this career he has assembled a variety of mantra, proverbs, and sayings which he has used to help guide his career and serve as advice to others.

Early in the book, Mr. Rumsfeld talks about meetings.  What he mentions struck me as solid guidance not only for meetings but also for exercises.  He says “There is a balance that needs to be struck in determining who to invite to a meeting.  You want those who need to be there to contribute substance to the discussion.  But it can be useful to have people who may not be in a position to directly offer substantive input but will benefit from hearing how and why certain decision are being reached.”  Very often exercise offer great opportunity for people to learn – not only the participants but ‘shadowers’ as well.

Mr. Rumsfeld continues on to say “Including a range of people can also ensure that a variety of perspectives will be considered and help identify gaps in information and views.”  Consider that we build, conduct, and evaluate exercises primarily to test plans, polices, and procedures.  This testing is best performed by a spectrum of individuals giving different ideas and perspectives.  Someone may interpret a policy in a completely different way or have an approach to a problem that hasn’t been considered prior.  These fresh ideas, even if flawed, should be brought out into the open for discussion and consideration.

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you probably know that I prefer smaller meetings and have stressed that participants in exercises should be of a manageable number.  As Mr. Rumsfeld says, there is a balance that must be struck.  You want to be inclusive, but large numbers lend themselves to over-discussion and tangents.  For meetings do you expect the person to add value?  Should they be there given their area of responsibility?  Similarly in exercises is the individual associated with the objectives of the exercise?  (Recall that in exercises we should always reflect on the objectives throughout the entire design process).  When we add more participants to an exercise we need to ensure that they have something to participate in, so injects must be written for them and their activities must be evaluated.

A few years back my team was designing a table top exercise as a lead-in to a significant full-scale exercise.  We did not want to start the full-scale with the initial response, as so many often times are, as the objectives of that exercise were to test the extended response and to examine issues beyond the initial response.  That said, we felt it not fair for us to design such a large exercise by dictating what the first responders would do in the first 48 hours, rather we wanted them to tell us themselves.  So we designed a table top exercise to provide us with their actions both ‘boots on the ground’ as well as policy-level including emergency declarations, evacuation areas, and mutual aid requests.  We were quite fortunate that the design process for the exercise as a whole was very well received and many agencies wanted to participate – from federal, state, county, and local jurisdictions.  The exercise was centered on the state capital, which tends to garner even more attention and participation and included a scenario that most agencies have not participated in prior.  Needless to say, we had a lot of interest.  Nearly every agency invited to the table top wanted to bring not one or two additional people but often times three or four.  We discussed this matter with a few of the key agencies, asking of these were needed participants or observers.  The answer we got was that they were both.  Because of the technical nature of the incident, many agencies realized they needed their main spokesperson supported by one or more technical experts.  We realized this was a fair and reasonable request, but we still needed to figure out how to accommodate them all!

We decided to permit each representative to have a ‘second chair’ – someone seated directly behind them who could advise on technical matters.  Additional specialists were available to them in an adjacent room, which had the discussion live broadcast to them via closed circuit television.  Specialists could be ‘swapped out’ at any time based on the needs of the discussion.  This solution worked well for the exercise, keeping the number of direct participants manageable and meeting the needs of participants to have their specialists available to advise on technical matters – which truly helped inform their decisions and ultimately the outcome of the exercise.

Sometimes, though, you have to say ‘no’.  Realize that as an exercise designer you MUST set a firm deadline on additional participants.  Participants that are added late can set your design team back significantly by needing to ensure that they are written into the exercise and have sufficient activity to make their participation worth while for both them as well as the exercise as a whole – which can be particularly challenging if they are from a different jurisdiction or discipline altogether.  I’ve had to turn down several interested parties and while it’s often difficult to say no, it’s often for the better – and your design team will respect you for it.

What thoughts do you have on ‘right sizing’ your meetings and exercises?  Is there certain guidance that you use?

©2014 Timothy Riecker